Unusual walk on the usual path

– Posted by Madhuri Agarwal (ASER New Delhi team)

We looked at the watch then looked at each other, it was 8.30 am. The second day of the Bihar School Assessment started with heavy rain. I, along with two DIET students, had to reach a school in one of the clusters of Sahebpur Kamal block of Begusarai district. The sandy river basin of the cluster is known for frequent floods caused by the Ganges during the monsoon season. Our sampled school was located in a small village across this region. To reach the school we had to cross the river basin.

Surveyors walking towards the village

It was drizzling and the path ahead was murky and seemed endless. I tried to concentrate but my eyes could not spot the school. On asking about the school the local standing by said, “just a 3 km walk”. Standing right at the edge of the dam constructed by the villagers, we were in a fix. The task was herculean, reach school on time and assess all Std. 4 children in Language and Math for which we needed at least 2 hours. We were already late. The school would close by 11.30 am. We had one hour at hand to reach the school. With no time to ponder over a solution, we decided to march ahead.

Surveyor waiting for the rain to stop under the shed
The route was carved in sand and mud. As we walked ahead it became more and more slippery. After saving myself several times from falling, I decided to remove my slippers. The surveyors accompanying me also removed their shoes and rolled up their pants. With feet covered in sludge, we moved on. As we walked further and further, I realized we were leaving behind all signs of human dwelling and entering an abode of nature. With careful, steady steps and hopeful smiles, we ploughed our way towards the village.

And suddenly it started raining profusely. Attempts to prevent myself from the rain with the help of an umbrella went futile. It became almost impossible to walk and we had to stop. We saw a shed in the distance and decided to walk towards it. Under its small shelter,we waited for the rain to stop. I looked around, after walking for almost an hour we were in the middle of nothing. We all stood silent, tired, dirty and drenched. Time was ticking by as thoughts came and went; was it a wrong decision? Were we foolhardy? Was there any point in going back now?

As we peered through the distance with minds filled with dilemma, we saw a few villagers walking in the mist. At that moment I thought to myself that what seems arduous and unique for us is a daily routine for many. This unusual walk is the usual path taken by the villagers to go to their daily work, to buy things from the market, to reach the school or to reach the hospital in case of emergencies. It seems inconceivable or irrational but people still continue to live in such remote areas. I wondered, if it’s true that for a human being, attachment to one’s own land surpasses all other needs for existence.

I was getting impatient and to reach the school. Fortunately, the rains slowed down the weather cleared and as the clouds decided to rest. We walked towards the point from where we saw the villagers coming. As we crossed them they stared at us amazed, I could hear a few giggle as we passed. There is a thin line which differentiates bravery and stupidity, honestly I didn’t know at that moment on which side of the line was I standing.

We saw the village few hundred meters ahead. After walking for an hour and a half we finally reached the village. But there was no time to celebrate; we had to reach the school as soon as possible. The villagers showed us the way. As we entered the school we saw most of the children were sitting in the veranda. They looked at us, some confused but mostly amused. This school was upgraded to upper primary recently, and we found fewer enrollments in Classes 6 to 8 as opposed to 1 to 5. The total enrollment of the school was close to 480 with only 4 teachers in total. They would teach all subjects and multiple grades. Multi-grade teaching is a common phenomenon in many schools in Bihar as we saw even in this school the classrooms were packed tight, with more than a hundred students from different grades sitting together on the floor with a single teacher managing all of them. The teachers complained about the sorry state of the school and how difficult it becomes to manage when even a single teacher misses school. I couldn’t but agree more with them on the same.

Children sitting on the veranda of the school

We identified the standard 4 children and started with our exercise of first interacting with children and then organizing the written assessment of language and math. We then carried out one-on-one oral assessment. Glancing at the oral testing result, we were not surprised to see the low learning levels of children. Is it fair to cite remoteness and poor access to schooling as reasons for low learning levels? Would that be a fair assumption?

Moving out of the school, we looked up and it was not raining then but the sky looked gloomy. We were all set to head out on our journey back when suddenly children from behind waved us goodbye and shouted “kal phir aana”, waving, I smiled back helplessly.